I cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn’t surrounded by books.
As a kid, I was never happier than when I was perusing the shelves of a library or browsing a second-hand bookshop – apart from being tucked away somewhere reading the books I’d chosen.
When I was 11, my family spent a year travelling around Australia. If we stopped in a town with a second-hand bookshop, I’d seek it out and search for new (to me) titles in my favourite series: Nancy Drew, the Famous Five and Trixie Beldon, as well as anything by Judy Blume or Beverly Cleary. But I also discovered other stories such as The Diary of Anne Frank and Ruth Park’s Playing Beattie Bow.
I managed to read my way around the country that way, as second-hand bookshops were relatively common at the time. Mum and Dad faced a difficult task cajoling me out of imaginary worlds and into the one we were actually travelling through.
The following year, we moved to a remote mining town in the Northern Territory, where the local shopping centre contained one of everything – except a bookshop. There was a library, though, which I located on the first day at my new school.
As I walked into the undercover area, another student introduced herself, and invited me to sit with her friends at lunch time. ‘Meet us outside the library,’ she said. However, the group soon discovered my parents were two of the new teachers starting that year. Apparently, this was socially unacceptable, and I found myself ‘ditched’ as quickly as I’d been welcomed.
The only consolation was that, in the process, I discovered the air-conditioned comfort of the school library.
Beautiful Libraries vs Great Libraries
There are some beautiful libraries across the globe.
But it’s not actually the architecture or graduer that makes a library great.
Growing up, I simply needed a space that offered a warm welcome, cool relief from the wet season’s humid heat – and plenty of books.
Sometimes those books invited me to be adventurous on days when I felt far from brave. Sometimes they encouraged empathy for lives different to my own. And sometimes they simply offered a magical escape.
My school library offered refuge from the taunts and loneliness of the playground, and although I did eventually make wonderful friends, the library never lost its appeal. I loved the freedom to browse and discover ‘new’ stories, as I had done in second-hand bookshops. The difference here was that these books were free for all, from those who lived on ‘Snob Hill’ to the poorest kid in town. Plus in Australia, authors earn a small amount when you borrow a book from a library, which doesn’t happen when buying one second-hand.
Ultimately, my school library also encouraged my own imagination, becoming a space in which I could scribble down my own stories – sometimes ambitious tales of adventure and mystery, often cliched teenage romances and occasionally very bad poetry.
None of this would have been possible without the librarians who welcomed me. Afterall, it was the school librarians who selected and ordered all those books I checked out.
My English teacher may have broadened my reading by introducing me to the work of Doris Lessing, but it was the school librarians who showed me how to conduct research for an independent study project. And it was those same librarians who helped me locate and access relevant information and archival material from other libraries hundreds of kilometres away. Not only did I benefit from this assistance while at school, but these skills were precursors to those I needed for research and writing projects I’d take up many years later.
Neither Siri nor Professor Google come close to a great librarian. As Neil Gaiman said, “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”
We need our school libraries and we need fabulous librarians who’ll continue to create spaces that encourage and nurture a love of words and a fascination for the worlds – fiction and non-fiction – that are literally at our fingertips.
And to my school librarians – Mrs Bowen, Mrs Collins and Ms Travis – thank you for providing a safe space for book nerds like me, as well as the free access to hundreds of stories I only discovered because of you.
With much gratitude,
PS. I do have one confession to make. I once ‘borrowed’ a book on how to write poetry without checking it out properly. I kind of accidentally on purpose forgot to return it. I still have it … I’m a little terrified to think about what the late fee will be.